Once upon a time colleges worried about having too many students willing to settle for gentleman's C's. Now they worry about having too many students feeling entitled to automatic A's. To combat grade inflation, Princeton has adopted guidelines that say no more than 35 percent of its undergraduates should get A's. At Reed College students' transcripts come with an explanatory card that discloses what the grade point average of their graduating class was. Other colleges are trying to counter grade inflation by disclosing what the median grade average in a particular course was.
In a tough economy colleges are fearful that graduate schools and employers won't be able to tell who their best students are. It is a justifiable fear, and as a professor in a small, liberal arts college, I, too, am concerned with grade inflation.
What, however, most worries me about the current grade inflation debate is that it covers up a more serious issue -- how do we make grades, especially good grades, meaningful for all students?
As things now stand, an A can have a variety of meanings. It can describe a student who is a skilled researcher, an original thinker, superb test taker, a gifted writer. But what an A does not tell us is the depth at which these skills exist or how they are combined in an individual student. In a large university, an A student can sit through a lecture course and not know what he did to draw the admiration of his professor.
At the college where I teach, one of our answers to this ambiguity is a written evaluation, roughly a page in length, that we issue at the end of every term. The evaluations we as teachers turn out are not a perfect solution to grade inflation and the ambiguous A, but they mean we go far beyond just offering up a final grade.
We individualize those we teach. A talented student who did well, but not great, work might, for example, get a far more critical evaluation from me than an average student who went above and beyond the requirements of my course.
The difficulty is replicating this model of evaluating students, It doesn't work if the closest connection a teacher has with his students is through e-mail. You need faculty who are willing to turn out written reports at the end of every term. You need a teacher-to-student ratio that allows professors to know their students, and you need professors who meet with their students in one-on-one settings.
These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they are formidable. In combination they mean giving students a priority they don't have at institutions where publication, above all else, determines who gets tenure and classroom teaching is, as a consequence, a side issue. Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower (John Wiley and Sons).